To view our videos, you need to
install Adobe Flash 9 or above. Install now.
Then come back here and refresh the page.
RALEIGH – It's been 13 years since since Sgt. Ed Lowry was gunned down in Cumberland County.
His killers were sentenced to death, but that sentence was changed to life without parole.
“Every time I see a trooper's car, I'm looking for my brother, he's not in it. It's hard,” said Al Lowry. “There's not a day that I don't think about. There's not a state trooper car that goes by that I don't think about it. There's not a uniform that I don't see that I don't think about it and even though it has been 15 years, it is still an emotional experience.”
Sgt. Lowry's family has been acting as his voice in the ongoing battle over whether or not North Carolina should end its de-facto moratorium on the death penalty.
And if it does, should the four-year-old Racial Justice Act continue to be part of the appeals process.
Right now, 153 inmates sit on North Carolina's death row, waiting to see if the state is going to carry out their sentence.
With the legal wrangling in the court system, the answer is not clear.
“We have not had an execution in North Carolina since 2006 and the longest serving person on death row has been there since 1985,” said Sen. Thom Goolsby, R-New Hanover.
At issue is a lawsuit where death row inmates have questioned the state' protocol to use its cocktail of lethal drugs for execution.
A U.S. Supreme Court case said a similar mixture of drugs used in Kentucky was was legal.
But then the state medical board spoke out.
“The medical board agreed that it would be unethical for doctors, and the organization that regulates nurses also, took the same position, that it would be unethical for them to participate in executions,” said Bill Coleman, Duke University professor. “I think that is a general principle that applies in all states, in that the American Medical Association models that have been adopted. It is unethical for doctors to participate in executions. One of the things that is somewhat unique in North Carolina is that is that North Carolina law required doctors to participate in the executions.”
The North Carolina Supreme Court said the medical board overstepped its authority with its declaration, but then, the Council of State revised state execution protocol in a nonpublic meeting.
Another lawsuit against the state was filed.
While this legal wrangling was going on, North Carolina saw several men who were wrongfully found guilty released from death row.
Some state leaders then said it was time to look at the death penalty in the state.
“Over the past few years, we have read many headlines about death penalty convictions being overturned,” said then-House Speaker Jim Black. “I believe we need to review and reform our death penalty laws and protocols.”
Years later, some steps were taken.
In 2009, the General Assembly debated this idea of the so-called Racial Justice Act, a new avenue for appeal for death row inmates.
It immediately raised some red flags for some law enforcement across the state, but for those who supported it, they said it was a necessary step for North Carolina.
“Let's not be naïve, it has been a factor at times in the past,” said Sen. Floyd B. McKissick, Jr., D-Durham.
Legislators fought to make the Racial Justice Act a state law.
RJA, as it is called, says: "No person shall be subject to or given a sentence of death or shall be executed pursuant to any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race."
The day it was signed into law by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, proponents said it was a huge step forward for the state.
“By passing the Racial Justice Act, we have infused antibody into a system that we know is diseased with racism,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of NAACP North Carolina.
But for some families who lost loved ones to murder, they said RJA has opened new wounds.
“Put yourself in my shoes: Racial Justice has put this case right back to start over,” said Orlando Howell.
But there are strong feelings on the other side of this issue as well.
Greg Taylor was found guilty of killing Jacquetta Thomas in 1991. In 2010, Taylor was found innocent of that crime.
Thomas' sister said she is thankful that Taylor wasn't on death row – not only because it turns out Taylor didn't do it, but because she said an execution would not bring her any peace.
“I am always appalled when I hear legislators speak and they say we are doing this for the family members of the victims,” said Yolanda Littlejohn. “You don't speak for me as a victim because murdering someone else -- because that is how I look at it -- is no different than my sister's murder.”
But that is the conversation happening in Raleigh during this session of the General Assembly.
Senate Bill 306 takes steps to repeal the Racial Justice Act and help jump start executions.
“Victims families have suffered far too long and it is time to stop the legal wrangling and bring them peace and the closure they deserve, said Goolsby.
There has been an outcry from folks who said RJA is working.
In Cumberland County, four death row inmates are now serving life without the possibility of parole.
One of the attorney's arguing in their favor said RJA proved race played a role in their sentencing.
“For the very first time, despite all the litigation, despite all the motions, for the very first time, there was unearthed an abundance of evidence that specific to those cases about prosecutorial notes with racial slurs in them, very specific evidence of racial discrimination in the those cases in Fayetteville,” said Jay Ferguson.
But nearly universally, district attorneys across North Carolina say the Racial Justice Act has clogged up the court system – with almost every person sitting on death row filing for this appeal to their sentence.
The district attorneys said they want the law gone.
“This white defendant who killed two white individuals, tried to kill a third white individual, who was investigated by a white police officer, who was tried by me, a white prosecutor, in front of a white judge, he subsequently filed for relief, believe it or not, under the Racial Justice Act,” said Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill.
The votes on the bill have fallen basically along party lines.
But bill or not, some said the conversation is not as big as it needs to be, and that its time for North Carolina to decide if it wants to figure out a way to end its de-facto moratorium on the death penalty, or get rid of the death penalty all together.
“I think that's a conversation that's been going on for years, since 1976, when North Carolina re-instated the death penalty,” said Prof. Coleman. “There has always been a question of is it worth it to try to impose it, can it be done fairly, can it be done in a way that is not too expensive.”
In fact, states like New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, and Maryland have all decided to do away with their death penalty recently
A 2009 study by Philip Cook with Duke University suggested that in North Carolina, the state could have spent around $11 million less per year on criminal justice if the death penalty was abolished.
That's factoring in court, inmate, and other capital costs.
But for some murder victims' families, they said money doesn't matter. For them there is no peace that can be offered by restarting executions, they said.
Johnelle Robinson, 31, was murdered just two months ago. His alleged murderer, Demitures Lee Ellis, is awaiting trial, but his family said they know that a death sentence is not the closure they are looking for.
“I just don't see how killing another human being could be my closure, be what I am looking for,” said William Robinson, the victim's brother. “It just doesn't make sense and, plus, it doesn't seem like, as a Christian, I don't see how it's right. He might be sentenced to death on a day and God may be ready to save him the next. It just doesn't work with my beliefs as a Christian and when his salvation may come.”
According to a poll released by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling, Robinson is in line with how many North Carolinans feel.
When asked in February if they would support or oppose replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole if the offender had to work and pay restitution to the victim's family, 68 percent of respondents said they support it.
For the family of Officer Roy Turner, they said the were pleased when their son's murderer was sentenced to death.
But it was a death sentence that was overturned in December because of RJA.
“It is sending a message to people who have this intent in mind they can go ahead and do this with no repercussions,” said Roy Turner Sr. “They say, 'Hey, you can go to North Carolina, do some horrible crime and don't have to worry about it. Kill the police, you don't got to worry about it. Kill a state trooper, you don't have to worry about it. Kill the county police, you don't have to worry about it.' Kill the police and hope you have an all-white jury or an all-black jury, you'll get over it.”